[27 June 2014]
It’s easy to forget how much can happen in five issues. So often nowadays, that’s only the first arc of a larger story being told in an ongoing series, or maybe the first half of a major event comic, not including tie-ins. Even when there are complete series contained in that space, it’s not uncommon for the stories to be somewhat simpler, with smaller casts and scopes. This way, what’s there can be examined more closely in fewer pages.
However, it’s possible to tell a significantly grander story in the same five issues without sacrificing any depth, assuming that the creators can all maintain the right pace. Jeff Parker and Marc Laming’s Kings Watch is a recent example of a classically outrageous sci-fi action tale being told with a more modern sensibility, where every scene has some extra meat on its bones without weighing things down. And a key component of the narrative’s skillful speed is its natural, casual, human humor.
The jokes in Kings Watch never steal the limelight or stop the show. They’re given due attention, and sometimes even their own panels, but nobody’s winking at the audience or snarkily piling onto the funny thing someone else just said. When a character makes a joke, there’s always a sincere vulnerability behind it, a glimpse at who they are as a person. Which is true of all the best humor in real life, too. When there’s honesty in a joke, it’s more likely to resonate with others, and that bit of connective truth also amplifies the humor.
In the case of Kings Watch, it also means that every joke serves a narrative purpose, at least insofar as they all help develop the characters. With about ten major players involved, including a seven-person team of equally important protagonists, ensuring that all the personalities and points of view are clear and distinct is important, and there’s no more efficient way to accomplish that than by exploring everyone’s sense of humor.
Don’t mistake Kings Watch for a comedy, though. It is a lighthearted and good-spirited, but still very much a tragedy, where no victory comes to any of the heroes without first great loss and then great sacrifice. The villains do a lot of damage and cause a lot of death before their plans are ultimately thwarted, and then even at the finish line, one good guy dies and three more get stranded on an enemy planet. It’s not the worst-case scenario, but it’s no happy ending, either.
It all begins with Ming the Merciless and an evil cult led by a man named Cobra joining forces to make Earth the next planet in line to be conquered as part of Ming’s intergalactic empire. Ming and Cobra activate the semi-titular King’s Watch—“semi” because the title of the comic technically does not have the apostrophe, though I’m not perfectly clear on why that is—an ancient stone that acts as a gateway between Earth and Ming’s homeworld of Mongo.
An instant side effect of the gate opening up is that all computers and similar technology on Earth are shut down completely, after which invasion forces pour out of smaller gates from Mongo located all over our world, overrunning major cities and mercilessly killing whoever they encounter. So the bad guys certainly get their licks in, but with determined resistance always right behind and, eventually, overtaking them.
This resistance is a team comprised of characters from classic adventure comicstrips, primarily the three heroes who also starred in the old Defenders of the Earth cartoon: The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and Flash Gordon. Though the time period of Kings Watch is current, these three men don’t need to be dramatically changed to fit into the new environment. Flash Gordon is a futuristic sci-fi hero anyway, so he can still be ahead of the times and ever the reckless but talented braggart he should be.
The Phantom has always been a character whose skills are largely timeless, and because the moniker and mask have been passed from one Phantom to the next for generations, there’s no need to explain his presence in our time. Mandrake is in a similar position, because magic doesn’t rely on a certain time period to be effective and impressive, especially when one of the first things to go wrong is an attack against modern technology. Plus Mandrake doesn’t age, or at least not at the same rate of the rest of us, so there’s no era in which he couldn’t conceivably exist.
The original popularity of these characters no doubt had at least something to do with how flexible they were in terms of the variety of settings and/or stories they might fit into, and it works to their advantage here, since they’re each very different in their skills and attitudes, yet need to quickly join together as a cohesive team.
Fighting with this trio are several supporting characters who all originate from the old comicstrips as well, though they get somewhat more updated/adjusted for the modern day. Mandrake’s former assistant and current friend Lothar now conveniently works as a safari guide in Tanzania, around the same area where the Phantom lives and operates, which is how those people all come together. Dale Arden, the traditional love interest character for Flash Gordon, is removed from the romantic role and made into a science reporter and, more importantly, the closest thing the group has to a voice of reason.
Similarly, Karma, who remains a love interest for Lothar, is no longer someone he already knows but a smart and skilled magician in her own right who lives with a native tribe in Tanzania with whom the Phantom is familiar/pseudo-friendly. Finally, there’s Dr. Hans Zarkov, an enthusiastic drinker and over-confident scientist who works with Flash Gordon, so…essentially the same as he always was, but heavily soaked in booze.
It feels like I’ve spent a lot of words now laying out the entire cast, though I haven’t even mentioned Narda yet, Mandrake’s ex-wife who now works for Cobra and later becomes Cobra herself when the current one dies. The reason I’m talking about the characters so much is that, even with all the hideous monsters, amazing magic-technology combinations, fictional warfare, advanced space travel, and other awesome high concepts and/or magnificent visuals, Kings Watch is ultimately a character-driven piece.
The reader learns about all the magnificent, superhuman stuff only when the heroes do, so we are in lock-step with them from start to finish. When they discover something, we discover it with them. When they rush to save the day in the nick of time, we feel all the urgency they do, and that is what makes their wins and losses exciting. It’s not the actual fighting that thrills, but the stakes of each fight and the effort and emotional investment it takes the heroes to even get to be part of the conflict.
Also, up until Ming and Cobra succeed in activating the King’s Watch, there is a strong air of mystery around the details of the story. People all over the world are having the same recurring apocalyptic nightmares, strange lights are appearing in the sky, and nobody quite knows what to make of any of that. They (and we) all soon learn that these initial events are merely the warning signs of Ming’s impending takeover, but before that gets revealed, there are a lot of dangling questions. With all this uncertainty up front, it’s important that the reader has something concrete to hold onto, and for Kings Watch that’s the cast.
They’re all fleshed out quickly and fully through Parker’s carefully-constructed dialogue and Laming’s equally well-crafted character designs, body language, and subtle facial cues. And seeing how they stay strong, calm, smart, and especially funny in the face of such enormous and terrifying mysteries is what makes them all so immediately likable. It is also what makes them the perfect stars for this narrative; they’re each the sort of person who can keep his or her head in an insanely stressful situation.
It takes this specific combination of people to defeat Ming, because only their combined overabundance of knowledge and courage could pull it off. It’s not immediately obvious what Kings Watch is about, but it is apparent right away that the people who populate it are well worth reading about, which is more than enough to carry the audience from the uneasy, obscure start to the explosive conclusion.
All of this brings me back to the comic’s humor, because it, as I’ve mentioned, is a major part of how Parker and Laming introduce and continue to build up all of the characters without needing to stall out for origin stories or the like. Everyone is funny in their own way, and each individual sense of humor says a lot about the person who carries it. Flash, for example, is often funny without intending to be, simply because his attitude is so excessively confident and laid back. He gets excited by the things that freak everyone else out, the near-death experiences and potential suicide missions that are necessary to bring Ming down.
That Flash can legitimately enjoy himself when he’s seconds away from dying adds much-needed levity to some very serious scenes. The Phantom, on the other hand, has a very dry, almost monotonously matter-of-fact approach to the world. Not that he’s an emotionless robot, he just keeps his feelings a bit more restrained than the rest of the team. When he does break to toss out a joke, it’s always intentional, quick, and subtle, not big obvious gags but smaller moments of wry humor.
In an early interaction, Lothar calls the Phantom by his other name, “The Ghost Who Walks,” to which Phantom replies, “I sometimes ride a horse too.” It’s funny, but it’s also true and, more importantly, it brings Phantom down from the level of a legendary/mythological figure to that of a flesh-and-bones human being. He is the Ghost Who Walks, but he’s also just the guy who happens to have that title for now, and his brief moment of playfulness with Lothar reflects Phantom’s awareness of his own humanity.
I could go on with examples for Mandrake, Dale, Lothar, Karma, and Zarkov all if I wanted, but that seems like a needless amount of evidence to support my point. I will say that, along with the things that Parker’s script has everybody say and do, Laming’s detailed character work also goes an incredibly long way in showing us who they are and enhancing the series’ humor overall.
Mandrake in particular has some hilarious expressions throughout this story, from amusingly puzzled to arrogantly smirking and everything in between. He’s a showman, especially in battle where illusions are his stock-in-trade, and the overacting and self-confidence that come with that personality are on stark display in this comicbook. He loves what he does and has fun with his false images as often as possible, and the delight he takes in successfully frightening or flabbergasting his opponents is glaringly clear.
Top to bottom, Kings Watch is an exercise in storytelling efficiency. It only takes one issue for Ming to announce his intentions of ruling Earth and begin the invasion, and then for the heroes to figure out what is going on and both devise and employ a strategy to stop it. So at the start of that issue (#4) Ming has the upper hand, showing up for the first time and totally taking charge of things. Then by the end of the same chapter his invasion forces have been (temporarily) halted by the good guys.
That much story would be an entire arc in some comics, if not two: one for Ming to arrive and get the edge, and another for the heroes to turn the tables on him. Parker and Laming get it done in 20 pages, and it is truly a collaborative effort to make so much occur in such a confined space. Parker cuts through any superfluous material and gives us only the necessary information, then infuses that with a healthy dose of humor to keep things lively and make sure the characters are always the focus.
Laming lays out every page thoughtfully, but it is really how much he can fit into a single panel that matters most here. He has an impeccable sense of space, and can fit a lot of people into a small panel without it feeling crowded, then turn around and do a full-page splash of just Mandrake, Flash, and the Phantom walking in the desert without it looking empty (see above).
The combined talents of these two creators means that the narrative can move rapidly without being rushed, and can be full of jokes without straying into territory that’s so comedic or goofy it undermines the seriousness of the story. Kings Watch is a high-speed, high-stakes action-adventure series, and has all the violence and sadness and death it should. It just also happens to be hilarious as often as it appropriately can, and that humor is one of its most important and enjoyable elements.